August 12, 1999


The twenty enemies of the Internet

Reporters Sans Frontières. Press Release - 9 August 1999

Forty-five countries restrict their citizens' access to the internet - usually by forcing them to subscribe to a state-run Internet Service Provider (ISP). Twenty of these countries may be described as real enemies of this new means of communication. On the pretext of protecting the public from "subversive ideas" or defending "national security and unity", some governments totally prevent their citizens from gaining access to the internet. Others control a single ISP or even several, installing filters blocking access to web sites regarded as unsuitable and sometimes forcing users to officially register with the authorities.

The internet is a two-edged sword for authoritarian regimes. On the one hand, it enables any citizen to enjoy an unprecedented degree of freedom of speech and therefore constitutes a threat to the government. On the other, however, the internet is a major factor in economic growth, due in particular to online trade and the exchange of technical and scientific information, which prompts some of these governments to support its spread. The economic argument seems to be winning the day in countries such as Malaysia and Singapore, where controlling "dangerous" sites is proving difficult for the authorities. Moreover, web surfers can find ways round censorship: encoding, going through servers that offer anonymity when consulting banned sites or sending email, connecting via GSM telephones and cellphones, and so on.

Reporters Sans Frontières has selected 20 countries that it regards as enemies of the internet because they control access totally or partially, have censored web sites or taken action against users. They are: the countries of Central Asia and the Caucasus (Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, Kirghizia, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan), Belarus, Burma, China, Cuba, Iran, Iraq, Libya, North Korea, Saudi Arabia, Sierra Leone, Sudan, Syria, Tunisia and Vietnam.

Belarus

In line with its repressive attitude towards other media, Alexander Lukashenka's government does not leave its citizens free to explore the internet independently. Access is supplied by a single ISP, Belpak, which belongs to the state.

Burma

Censorship is total, due to a state monopoly on access. In addition, a law passed in September 1996 obliges anyone who owns a computer to declare it to the government. Those who fail to comply may face up to 15 years in prison.

Central Asia and the Caucasus

In most of these countries, the authorities control or restrict internet access. In Tajikistan, a single ISP, Telecom Technologies, owned by the government, offers web access - and only in the capital, Dushanbe. Turkmenistan, a "black hole" where information is concerned, offers even more restricted access. Although there are privately owned ISPs in Uzbekistan and Azerbaijan, their operations are controlled by the telecommunications ministry, which is responsible for chastising those who speak out against the government. In Kazakhstan, and to a lesser extent in Kirghizia, the authorities demand prohibitively expensive usage and connection fees from private ISPs.

China

Although internet use is spreading rapidly, the government is trying to keep up pressure on users. They are closely monitored and are supposed to register with the authorities. In January 1999 a computer technician, Lin Hai, was sentenced to two years in prison by a Shanghai court for giving the email addresses of 30,000 Chinese subscribers to a dissident site that publishes an online magazine from the United States. Meanwhile officials fearing disturbances as the tenth anniversary of the Tiananmen massacre (4 June 1999) drew near ordered the closure of 300 cybercafÈs in Shanghai, on the pretext that they did not have the necessary authorisation.

In order to prevent the Chinese from finding information on the web, the authorities have blocked access to some sites. This happened to the BBC in October 1998. Zhang Weiguo, editor of the New Century Net (www.ncn.org) site, in Chinese, launched in the United States in 1996, estimates that it takes two months on average for the Chinese authorities to track down the relay server of a site and block access to it. The sites then change their address. Some censored pages are distributed by email, like underground newspapers that are photocopied and passed around secretly.

Cuba

The government controls the internet, just as it does other media. There is no free expression in Cuba at national level. About ten independent - and illegal - news agencies such as Cubanet and Cuba Free Press telephone reports to organisations based in Miami which publish them on their web pages. But this news is still the subject of repression: in October 1998, a foreign ministry official filed a complaint for "insult" against Mario Viera, of the independent agency Cuba Verdad, following publication of an article criticising him on the US-based Cubanet site. The journalist is still awaiting trial, and faces an 18-month prison sentence if convicted.

Iran

Censorship of the internet is identical to that affecting other media and covers the same subjects: sexuality, religion, criticism of the Islamic Republic, any mention of Israel, the United States, and so on. Because of the filters put in place by the authorities, access to some sites is banned: medical students are denied access to web pages that deal with anatomy, for instance.

Iraq

People in Baghdad have no direct access to the internet. Web sites of the official press and certains ministries are maintained by servers based in Jordan. In any case, because of the embargo very few people own computers.

Libya

It is impossible to explore the web from Libya. The government carefully keeps the population away from international information networks with the aim of maintaining control of their minds.

North Korea

People in Pyongyang cannot access the internet. The government deliberately prevents the population from seeing any news other than its own propaganda. The few official sites aimed at foreigners (the national news agency, newspapers and ministries) are maintained by servers located in Japan.

Saudi Arabia

Even though 37 private companies have been given permission to operate as ISPs, all traffic at the moment goes through the servers of the Science and Technology Centre, a public body, which is equipped with filters banning access to sites that provide "information contrary to Islamic values". The internet is officially regarded as "a harmful force for westernising people's minds".

Sierra Leone

As part of their repression of the opposition press, the authorities have also attacked an online newspaper. In June 1999, two journalists from the daily The Independent Observer, Abdul Rhaman Swaray and Jonathan Leigh, were arrested. They were accused in particular of collaborating with the online newspaper "Ninjas", which is published on a site based abroad (www.sierra-leone.cc) by journalists who have gone into hiding.

Sudan

Through Sudanet, the only ISP, the state controls the few connections to the internet possible in this country where freedom of expression is often suppressed.

Syria

Internet access is officially banned to individuals. Offenders may face a prison sentence, just as they may for "unauthorised" contacts with foreigners. Only official organisations are allowed access to the internet through the public telecommunications authority, whose ISP maintains web sites for state newspapers, the national news agency and a few ministries.

Tunisia

The Tunisian Internet Agency (ATI) controls the two privately owned ISPs, which are in fact connected with the authorities: one is run by President Ben Ali's daughter and the second by another person close to the government. Their central servers control the access of certain users. In November 1998, following publication by Amnesty International of a report on human rights violations, a web site with the address www.amnesty-tunisia.org, deliberately designed to create confusion with the non-government organisation, praised the president's work for human rights. The director of the public relations agency that launched the site - one of whose biggest customers is the Tunisian government - claimed that he was merely coming to the country's defence. Meanwhile, access to Amnesty International's official site was blocked by the authorities.

Vietnam

Anyone who wants to access the internet has to ask for permission from the interior ministry and sign up with one of the two state-owned ISPs. Access is blocked to sites maintained by Vietnamese organisations based abroad and international human rights organisations. On 9 June, the Police Ministry ordered the post office to cancel the journalist Nguyen Dan Que's Internet account, after this former political prisoner had released a communique through the Internet calling for freedom a month earlier.

Recommendations

Reporters Sans Frontières calls on the governments of these 20 countries to immediately:

Reporters Sans Frontières calls on Burma, China, Cuba, Kazakhstan, Saudi Arabia and Tajikistan to ratify and enforce the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, Article 19 of which stipulates that "everyone shall have the right (...) to receive and impart information and ideas of all kinds, regardless of frontiers (...)".

The organisation also asks those states that have signed the covenant (Azerbaijan, Belarus, Iran, Iraq, Kazakhstan, Kirghizia, Libya, North Korea, Uzbekistan, Sierra Leone, Sudan, Syria, Tunisia and Vietnam) to respect the undertakings they made by doing so.

RSF -- http://www.rsf.fr

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